HIV Vaccine Trial Begins in South Africa
A new HIV vaccine trial has begun in Johannesburg, South Africa where experts are cautiously optimistic about its potential for success.

The trial, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is based on a trial that took place in Thailand and yielded moderately successful results. Thailand trial’s results were controversial because the vaccine was tested on a segment of the population with a low risk for infection. The trial in South Africa hopes to remedy this issue by using members of their own population, which have a uniquely high rate of infection and thus puts wider swaths of the population at risk.

The HIV/AIDS death rate has greatly decreased with the increasingly widespread availability of antiretrovirals, yet infection rates continue to increase. Scientists and doctors believe that a vaccine is the only possible measure to successfully eradicate the disease, and many of them believe that this trial could be the beginning of the end for a disease that continues to infect more than 1,000 people daily in South Africa alone.

CNN reports that an estimated one adolescent becomes infected every two minutes worldwide. According to Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there is no reason to believe that the HIV/AIDS crisis is over. In the U.S., infection rates have remained steady for the past 15 years in spite of prevention efforts.

Because of the high HIV infection rate in South Africa, scientists believe that an effectiveness rate of 50-60 percent would be sufficient to enter negotiations with drugmakers, although this is significantly lower than most other vaccines.

The study will enroll 5,400 sexually active men and women between the ages of 18 and 35 who are not infected with HIV. They will receive five shots of the vaccine and three boosters over the course of the study, which is expected to yield results in 2020. It aims to provide greater protection from infection and has been adapted for the HIV subtype that is found in southern Africa.

This trial, which is the first HIV vaccine trial in nearly a decade and is only the seventh full-scale human trial in the world, has been met with both skepticism and optimism. Glenda Gray, the president of the South African Medical Research Council, is leading the study. Although she admits that there is no guarantee that the trial will be successful, she remains optimistic about the results.

The HIV vaccine trial in Thailand was run by the U.S. Army, whose Dr. Nelson Michael called the trial “A signpost for vaccine development. This was a yes-we-can moment: the opportunity to become enthusiastic. The door has cracked open. We are all going to try to collectively crash through it.”

Kenya, who will be monitoring the trial closely, is expected to begin a similar trial early next year.

Eva Kennedy

Photo: Flickr

A potential medicine to be used to help skin cancer patients has been proven to also function as an HIV vaccine. This not only eliminates the deadly virus but also makes apparent dormant and hidden parts of the virus that would otherwise remain in a patient’s body until they became active again.

The drug that is used is called PEP005 and has been used primarily for the treatment of cancer patients. This was an ingredient in a treatment used to prevent skin cancer in individuals. However, recent studies have shown the further extent of the drug’s use with HIV-positive patients. Though still in its early stages, the drug has already been approved by the FDA, and researchers say the potential use of the drug in the treatment of HIV patients is incredible. The drug has primarily been significant in treating newborns and very small children who were born with the virus.

This new means of eradicating the virus opens new doors for a number of people that face the epidemic of HIV and AIDS. The previously considered anti-cancer treatment now comes as an additional treatment of the virus. Injection of the PEP005 drug, as well as the use of other treatment options, can work to treat particularly young victims of the life-threatening disease. Studies done at the University of California Davis have shown the potential of the drug. It performs a specific function known as “kick and kill,” in which it activates previously dormant cells of the virus and makes them obvious to doctors. The drug then works to immediately attack and kill the newly active HIV cells. The “kill” aspect obviously is the most important aspect of the drug’s function, especially because it reactivates the deadly virus.

Discoveries like these bring hope to the treatment of such horrible diseases. With the discovery of such a treatment next comes the necessity to find a means to make it accessible to other parts of the world such as Africa, which has the most concentrated number of cases of HIV than any other region of the world. Both HIV and cancer are universal evils we as a global community must combat together. Further research leading to further discoveries will hopefully render the HIV virus something that the global community faced together and eradicated, making it a thing of the past.

Alexandrea Jacinto

Sources: BBC, UC Davis Health System
Photo: Unity Observer

A professor of bio-molecular engineering has announced that he is close to perfecting a fully-functional HIV vaccine.

Professor Phil Berman is a pioneer in the arena of recombinant vaccines. He has been searching for an HIV vaccine for almost thirty years. Since his arrival at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2006, he has received millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health in pursuit of his goal.

This is not the first time Berman has announced major progress. According to a press release from the university, the current vaccine is a refinement of an older iteration called AIDSVAX, which Berman came up with while he was working for the biotech company Genetech in the 1990s. Between 2003 and 2009, AIDSVAX underwent trials on 16,000 people in Thailand. During the trials, it demonstrated a 31 percent success rate at preventing new HIV infections. This is still the only time an HIV vaccine has had a success rate that high.

However, at a success rate of 31 percent, it is not quite ready to put on the market. Regulatory agencies require at least a 60 percent success rate before a vaccine can be released to the general public. Berman has been slowly reworking the original vaccine’s formula to be more potent and effective. HIV is a virus capable of spontaneously mutating, so the vaccine needs to have “broadly neutralizing antibodies” to attack any and all HIV pathogens.

HIV and AIDS killed roughly 1.5 million people in 2013. This number is dwarfed by the people infected by HIV and AIDS. According to UNAIDS, 35 million people are living with HIV and AIDS, and of those 35 million, 19 million did not know they were infected.

Part of what makes HIV so terrifying is the stigma associated with it. Many still view the disease as a death sentence, and most people still consider it a shameful thing. The attitude around the disease makes people unlikely to get themselves tested. Despite growing testing campaigns by many governments, there is still an epidemic of people who are unaware they are infected by HIV or AIDS.

Berman’s vaccine is different from the other vaccines currently being researched. It focuses on a particular sugar on the virus’s complex surface. If successful, the antibodies in the vaccine should be able to penetrate the virus and bind to it before the host is infected.

“The kind of vaccine we’re making is to prevent infection all together, so that the virus never establishes this big library of variants,” Berman said to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We’re trying to create complete protection so that the virus never gets a foothold.”

If Berman succeeds, the battle against the global pandemic of AIDS and HIV will have an invaluable new weapon. Someday soon, it may even join the ranks of smallpox or the Black Death – a disease remembered, but no longer experienced.

– Marina Middleton

Sources: Science.Mic, University of California, Santa Cruz
Photo: Fenway Institute